“Before making my final decision, I want to run this by my accountant.” Feel your jaw tighten. You’ve invested hours in masterful relationship-building, data-gathering, creative brainstorming, number-crunching, and assembling presentations that make everything crystal clear–yet all that work needs to be purified by a CPA’s blessing!

But you have to admire the CPA mystique–built on a history of objectivity and independence, the balance of exacting detail and broad-based knowledge, and maybe knowing where skeletons are hidden. We’ve all tried to partner with them, yet in the decade since the ability to share revenues should have made it easier, partnering success remains spotty.

“Night and Day”

Ironically, the real image struggle for CPAs–particularly well-established independent firms–is escaping the commodity box of tax preparation and audits. Clients invite them to play a larger advisory role, but dispensing blessings after the fact does not make a comprehensive advisory practice. While large national and regional firms bulk up through acquisitions, independent firms know the more efficient option is to partner with outside resources–in particular, financial services professionals.

It shouldn’t take Dr. Phil to get the 2 groups together–the best independent financial services professionals and the best independent CPA firms. Look at the complementary skill sets: planning creativity wed to due diligence standards; relationship mindset supporting detail mindset; product access matching product needs.

But ask a CPA how many calls he gets a year from financial services professionals looking to partner up: too many. Now reverse the question for financial services professionals: none. If you want an instruction book on how to make partnering relationships work, find the reasons behind that disconnect.

Lesson 1 is getting the goals on the same page. Here’s the gap.

“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”

Financial services professionals assume CPAs want to expand their client base. Doesn’t everybody? The extensive planning work that characterizes our A-client relationships is immensely satisfying, but it is not endless. Finding new A-clients is always the prime directive, and we want CPAs to see that opportunity is everywhere!

Forget the stereotype that CPAs don’t get marketing. Their marketing instincts are just focused on client retention. Their A-client relationships are perpetual–or used to be. Today accountants are willing to admit that digital tax preparation resources leave them little value to add. So to secure the client loyalty they depend on, they know they must expand value-added services–not for higher revenues but to build new bridges with current clients. What holds them back are the potential risks to client retention if partnering goes bad, and they want us to see that risk is everywhere!

But successful financial services professionals know what separates them from their less successful peers is not just a higher level of expertise and creativity–it’s their ability to build lasting client relationships. The chances of screwing up CPA-client relationships aren’t worth discussing. So, not surprisingly, we call CPAs and go on and on about how our expertise and our creativity will expand their practice and add revenues–even asking for a meeting to make the same claims in person. The more CPAs hear, the faster they backpedal.

I say expansion, you say retention. Po-tay-toes, Po-tah-toes. Can this marriage be saved?

“I Concentrate On You”

Lesson 2 is to forget about what you want to do for CPA firms and start showing them that you understand what they want. It could be as simple as asking the right questions in the first phone calls and the first meetings so that the answers can set the agenda for partnering success.

Here are 7 questions you should be asking to start relationships on the right track:

1. In an ideal world, what are the most effective ways for CPAs to protect client relationships long term? Real world, which of those strategies are you pursuing?

2. When adding new services to your practice, how would you compare the risks of internal resources versus partnering with outside firms? What risks could you see in partnering with a firm like ours?

3. How important to lowering the risk is it for partnering firms to share the same vision or mission? What would prove to you that they share the same standards?

4. If you want to give clients the royal treatment, what would you do? When something goes wrong in a client relationship, what do you do? What have been the effects?

5. If we were to work together in some way, how would you envision the process step by step? What communication would you expect from my firm and when would you expect it? How often would you want to get together to see where things stand?

6. I’m sure you can already guess a lot about my firm’s capabilities, so ideally, in what areas would you envision us helping you protect and enhance client relationships? What information would you like to see from us to make all that more tangible?

7. Can you think of some good ways for us test the waters together? What’s the right time frame to do it?

These questions give you virtually no opportunity to talk about products or make claims about your firm or ask for referrals. Their purpose is to create a listener–no different from how you interview your own clients.

But listen actively–ask for details, tie the threads to related issues, concur from your own experiences, empathize with the emotions behind the answers. In addition, notice that every question cluster starts with a conceptual question followed by more direct questions. The abstract tends to be non-threatening, easier to respond to, and from there the concrete becomes less uncomfortable. Conversely, if you don’t get a good answer to your ideal world question, there is no point trying to pin it down to the real world. Just move on to another question cluster.

Besides the fact that you will distinguish yourself from all other financial services professionals, asking questions like these will demonstrate exactly how you are going to conduct yourself with the CPA’s clients: objectively, consultatively, insightfully. And of all the risks CPAs may contemplate in working with you, how you conduct yourself face to face with the client is the big one. Pass that test, and “Anything Goes.”